Support freedom — have faith in Arab nations’ self-governance 

I n my travels, I have come across three ways to categorize Arab-Americans: those who believe in freedom and those who don’t; those who think Arabs can run their own countries and those who don’t; and those who hate Israel and those who don’t.

As a Lebanese kid growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t know much about any of this. But I found out how deep the divisions between Arab-Americans ran when I wrote my first pro-Israel column for my college paper.

I defended Israel on some point I’ve long forgotten, but what I didn’t forget was the backlash I received from fellow Arabs. First came the letters, then the insults. It was as if I’d broken a secret code that Arabs never speak ill of Arabs in public — or kindly about Israel.

Black people have a term for black people who challenge the accepted narrative on race relations in America. It is a cruel term used to shame blacks to silence. It is “Uncle Tom.”

If there were such a term for Arabs, it would be “Uncle Ahmed.” That is how fellow Arabs viewed me. I was the self-hating Arab who sold out his people, even as some friends admitted privately that they agreed with me.

The fact is, all Arabs don’t look alike or think alike. We are not a universal group. But some of us believe in a universal truth — that every Arab deserves to live in freedom. Some of us want Arab countries to be more like America and Israel, places where the individual can flourish.

Say those words to some Arabs and they are shocked. I ascribe this to self-doubt, a lack of confidence and a deep-seated insecurity that maybe, just maybe, Arabs won’t be very good at the self-governance thing. That maybe, just maybe, Arab nations won’t be capable of building democratic cultures that engender the flourishing of human freedom.

When millions of Arabs in Iraq marched to the polls in 2005, it was a moment in history that confounded many Arab-Americans — and the American left. One of the world’s most brutal dictators had been toppled and a former prison state held free elections.

Where was the jubilation? Rather than celebrate, most Arabs spoke about the balance of power in the region, and how the ouster of Saddam Hussein would embolden Iran and other dictators. It was all gloom.

The rank bigotry of low expectations on display was repulsive to any self-respecting Arab. It was as if by virtue of being Arabs, the people of Iraq were incapable of running their own country.

Regrettably, many on the right were not consistent on the freedom front. While he was busy liberating Iraq, President George W. Bush was supporting dictatorships such as Hosni Mubarak’s all over the Middle East.

And what did we get? While Mubarak was stifling dissent at every turn, the one group not afraid to spread its message was the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak then used them as a bogeyman to maintain his grip on his people.

What America needs to do now is support a freedom agenda abroad, including those parts of the world that count Arabs as their inhabitants. If Arab countries such as Iraq, and now Egypt, can unleash the god-given talents of their people, and extract wealth not just from the ground but their citizens, watch Arab self-doubt begin to fade — and with it, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism too.  

Watch the power that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood hold over a captive audience disappear too.

Lee Habeeb is the vice president for content for the Salem radio network.

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Lee Habeeb

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